Wednesday, October 8, 2008
NEW YORK Ask Sarah Vowell a simple question -- like, say, "What turned you into the kind of person who would immerse yourself in the writings of 17th-century New England Puritans and write a book about them?" -- and within five minutes she's telling you about the time she became a human paintbrush in a piece of performance art.
This was in the mid-'90s, before public radio's "This American Life" turned Vowell into a radio personality, before books like "Assassination Vacation" turned her into a best-selling writer and before Pixar Studios turned her into the voice of Violet in "The Incredibles." Back then, she was just a grad student at the Art Institute of Chicago, doing a thesis on a 1960s phenomenon called Fluxus.
"They were this kind of collective of random artists," Vowell explains. Among their activities were short performance pieces based on what they called "event scores," little cards with simple instructions on them.
This explains how she found herself rolling out a 20-foot sheet of butcher paper in the aisle of a Chicago auditorium and crawling slowly down it on her hands and knees, trying to paint a straight line with her hair.
And what, you might ask, is the line that connects the Fluxus-admiring Sarah Vowell who dunked her 20-something head in paint with the Sarah Vowell, now 38, whose fascination with the Puritans inspired her to produce "The Wordy Shipmates," her fifth book, just published by Riverhead? (She'll be talking about it tomorrow night at Washington's Avalon Theatre, at an event organized by Politics and Prose.)
Well, she liked the fact that, under the Fluxus umbrella, "all of these really singular eccentrics could do their own art and do their own thing" but come together in group efforts as well. And she sees the theologically quarrelsome yet fiercely communitarian settlers of New England in the same light.
"It's my ideal of America," Vowell says. "I don't like a coherent group, I like an unruly group."
Or perhaps no group at all.
Never mind her public persona or the clutch of loyal friends she's assembled. Vowell is the kind of person who'd just as soon be holing up with a book of Puritan sermons or the diary of a dimly remembered president.
"I just like being in my apartment by myself for months at a time and figuring stuff out, in a way that's just me figuring it out," she says. "On my own."
She has been plunked down this day, not entirely happily, in one of her publisher's conference rooms, the kind where it's hard to tell if the muted wall color is gray or brown. ("It's 'greige,' as they would say on Apartment Therapy," Vowell deadpans.) In the course of a two-hour interview, she lets out a good number of short laughs, but you're more likely to see a corner of her mouth twitch faintly upward when she gets off a good line.
"Assassination Vacation," Vowell's previous book, is the kind of hip historical travelogue its title implies. Researching it, she got to sally forth to examine -- among other wondrous American locales -- "the Vatican of the Lincoln assassination subculture," a funky old house-turned-museum in Clinton, Md., where fugitive John Wilkes Booth dropped in for guns and whiskey. At Ohio's James A. Garfield National Historic Site, she got to ponder the chair in which the obscure, book-loving Garfield used to curl up "with all the decorum of a teenager plopped on top of a beanbag."